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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Case of Murder in Old Spotsylvania

                                                           Law book of Absalom Row

                                                            Law book of Absalom Row

Absalom Row (1796-1855)

     Absalom Row (1796-1855), my great great grandfather, served for many years as a justice of the peace in Spotsylvania County. His signature appears on a great many papers archived at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center in Fredericksburg. Many of these deal with the basic housekeeping of county business--powers of attorney, notarizations, road repairs and so on. Some rise above the level of the mundane, such as the organization and reimbursement of slave patrols. There is one set of papers, however, that stands in a class all by itself. This file consists of sixteen pages written in the hand of Absalom Row and is part of the archive of the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.
     On February 5, 1854 Absalom convened a court of inquisition held at the home of William T.J. Richards. The jurors sworn in to conduct this inquest included Melzi Chancellor, H.B. Sowell, Henry Jett, Reuben McGee, Joseph Stratton, James Jett and three others. These men were charged with the responsibility of investigating a murder that had occurred the night before. Beverley, a slave owned by William T.J. Richards, stood accused of murdering Jacob, a slave of Sanford Chancellor.

    In the course of this inquest, testimony was taken from several slaves who were present in the cabin when the event took place. Depositions were given by William, Peter, Dudley and Mary, the widow of the slain Jacob. Mary testified that Dudley had been to Fredericksburg that day and had brought fish he had caught to Mary's cabin. Then he went outside. Jacob wanted to go outside to be with him, but Beverley stood menacingly by the door, brandishing a knife. "No man shall come out by me tonight," he warned, and he threatened to cut any man who tried to get past him.
     Jacob was not so easily put off and "he seizes Beverley by the shoulders and snatches him from the door." He then ran outside. Beverley came after him and when he caught up with Jacob he stabbed him, inflicting a mortal wound. Beverley then ran back inside to retrieve a shovel. "He raised his hands and said so soon as I can get out of doors I will split his brains with this shovel." He was restrained from doing so, and in any case additional effort from Beverley would prove to be unnecessary that night. Jacob bled to death within minutes. The shovel was introduced into evidence nonetheless. Absalom Row wrote: "I acted as the coroner on the inquest about Jacob and saw the shovel that it was proved the prisoner held in his hand. It was a shovel of iron with a wooden handle say the handle and all was about one and one half to two feet long. I considered it a dangerous weapon and such a blow from it could produce death. I could kill any man with it..."
     Soon after Beverley's violent attack word was sent to Sanford Chancellor that one of his slaves had been grievously hurt at the Richards' place. "I saw the boy he was lying on the bed and was dead...I asked for the knife and went to look for it where it was said the scuffle occurred and did not find it but...noticed blood two or three feet around. Found the wound on the left side between the 5th and 6th ribs near the region of the heart. Made a post mortem examination, dissected very carefully...The examination showed that the knife or other instrument had penetrated the heart..."
     The witnesses present agreed that there was no alcohol in the cabin at the time. They also stated that there had never been any rancor between Beverley and Jacob prior to that night. No reason was given as to why Beverley barred the door in the first place, threatening to kill anyone who tried to go past them. If ever a murder deserved to be called a senseless killing, this case certainly would qualify.
     "Spotsylvania County to wit: To the clerk of the county court I Absalom Row a justice of the peace of said county do hereby certify that I have by my warrant this day committed Beverley, a slave the property of William T.J. Richards of the said county, to the jail of this county that he may be tried before the county court for a felony committed by him...upon one Jacob, a slave the property of Sanford Chancellor, the said Jacob then and there with the knife aforesaid one mortal wound, of which the said Jacob then and there instantly died."
     Beverley was found guilty of murder in the second degree. "This court doth adjudge and order that the said Beverley be punished by sale and transportation beyond the limits of the United States." William T.J. Richards was reimbursed $1200 for the loss of his property.


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